A Virtuoso in Overalls
The following account is adapted from an article entitled a “Photographic Ramble in the Millbach Valley,” published in “The American Journal of Photography,” September, 1896. The article was written by Dr. Julius F. Sachse, the eminent historian. Doctor Sachse was a member of the party touring the Lebanon Valley to obtain photographs of historic scenes. In the course of their journey they came upon Fort Zeller on the Mill Creek, near present-day Newmanstown.
The old colonial blockhouse caught the fancy of the men who were capturing pictures for posterity. While they stood admiring the antiquity of the structure and a reflecting upon the legends which center around it, the owner of the Zeller farm approached them. He was Monroe Zeller, the eight generation of the family of that name to live on the banks of the Mill Creek. We will allow Doctor Sachse to describe him:
“He appeared the typical Pennsylvania German farmer who had just returned from the harvest field. His home-spun clothing and cowhide boots, wide-brimmed straw hat, horny hands, bronzed face and heated brow seemed to verify the old Biblical injunction that, “one should earn his bread by the sweat of his brown. Cordial was the greeting; the sun, now at meridian, was exerting its full force, and the invitation to enter the cool stone mansion was cheerfully accepted.”
Adorning the walls of the living room of the Zeller home there were portraits of the great masters of music – Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Weber and an autographed portrait of the great Hungarian composer, Franz Liszt. Surprised to find this array in a farmhouse the members of Sachse’s party were even more astonished when the farmer in homespun overalls seated himself at the piano, and without any flourish, played an etude of Cramer. This was followed by selections from Bach and Beethoven and Gottschalk, ending with a rendition of the Faust valse by Liszt. A master was playing and his guests were charmed.
It was an ideal setting for a photograph – the blending of music – culture and agriculture. Would Zeller pose for a photograph? No, kindly but firmly, no! Some treasures are too precious for the eyes of a scoffing world bent only upon sensations and untutored in the finer impulses which come from the freshening well-springs of the soul.
But why hide your light under a bushel, Mr. Zeller? After all there are a few of your fellow men who could find rapture in your gifts.
And then the photographers learned something which caused them to exclaim in wonderment. Their host was the world-famous professor, Monroe Zeller, concert pianist, well known in all of the musical centers of the old world, entertaining admiring audiences in all of the major cities from Paris to Moscow! But that was his winter employment. During the summer months the great virtuoso returned to his farm in Millbach and attuned his ear to the song of the birds, the sighing of the winds through his willows and the liquid gurgling of the Mill Creek as it spilled its way through his farm to join the Tulpehocken.
Archival Notes: A cursory search of information on Monroe Zeller provided scant returns. A Reading Eagle article from January 23, 1896 page 2, provides a brief description of one of Professor Monroe Zeller’s European tours.